At age 32, Robert Bassman, a hotshot attorney with a toothy grin, is a Washington success story. He is the lead partner in his own K Street energy law firm -- Bassman, Mitchell & Levy -- and estimates he will make more than $100,000 in 1980. Not bad for a self-described "street kid from Clifton, N.J.," who scraped through high school, college and George Washington University Law School at the bottom of his class.
Yet Bassman is dissatisfied and often bored with his life. And that makes him surprisingly typical of the too-much, too-soon generation in Washington. Sounding like a recent cover of Esquire, Bassman said, "I've got a 12-year-old sports car, I've got a beautiful apartment, I've got a genuinely pretty wife, I've been abroad for each of the last eight years. I don't know anyone back home who has this stuff. But, I know it sounds trite, Is this all there is?"
Such a question would have been unfathomable to Bassman's family a generation ago. His grandparents were "Jewish socialists who left Russia before the czar fell." Because of money problems, neither of Bassman's parents finished high school. His father, who died a few years ago, was a jewelry salesman who made $7,000 in his best year. Bassman's mother, "one of those sainted mothers who sacrificed for her kids," still works as a bookkeeper in Clifton.
Perhaps his father, struggling all his life, had it better, Bassman mused. "I remember when I was a younger kid," he said with emotion in his voice, "watching my father look out the back porch window at a snowstorm. The heater was on in the house he owned - - it wasn't much of a house, but it was his -- and inside it was 71 degrees. He had a refrigerator full of food. And you could just see the look of satisfaction on his face that he was inside and warm, not outside where it was snowing."
Each generation has its own themes and symbols. Twenty-five years ago, the publication of Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit created an emblem for the era of the organization man. Tom Rath, 33, the novel's Harvard-educated hero, left a secure niche with a New York foundation to swim with the sharks at United Broadcasting.
Eventually, Rath discoverd that he couldn't cut it, that he wasn't a carnivore of the business world. But throughout the novel, Rath, the archetypal 1950's hero, was obsessed with money and equated it with security. He was haunted by memories of the men he had killed in World War II combat. His wife, Betsy, was a totally dependent helpmate who looked to him to play hunter and food-gatherer in the big city. He had three small children and worried about paying for their college education. He and his wife hated their small house in the Connecticut suburbs and dreamed of earning more to get something better.
A quarter of a century later, life is vastly different for Rath's counterparts in Washington, people like Bob Bassman. All the things that provided anchors for Rath's life have atrophied over the years. Gone are the memories of the Depression and World War II. Not many submissive wives, either, and few small children. Money is still important, but, in these inflationary times, who really believes that a bigger salary can provide security for the future?
For this generation's high achievers -- the White House aides, the young congressmen, the television journalists and the Washington lawyers -- still in their late twenties and thirties, life has been easy. Perhaps too easy. Nurtured by 1950's affluence, mde arrogant by 1960's rebellion, they have discovered that success without sacrifice, struggle or solid goals has no more intrinsic satisfaction than a good College Board score.
Bob Bassman may be more candid than most, but his discontent reflects a large number of men and women taking charge in Washington. These are the postwar babies who have succeeded in one of the most competitive cities in America. These are the winners, as well as the whiners, from a generation whose parents believed that no sacrifice was to great for the happiness of their children.
One recent evening, sitting in the Wine Bar at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, Bassman, dressed in a tan suit with a yellow tie hanging loosely around his neck, talked about his charmed life with a sense of wonder and ironic detachment. "It's all a matter of luck," he said. "Some people never get a break. I get lots of them."
The breaks started in 1972 when he graduated from law school without clear goals or direction and blundered into a job in Washington with a trade association for the forest products industry. "They wanted an environmental counsel," he said, "but they didn't know what that meant any more than i did."
In 1975 he took a flier and became the in-house lawyer for the National Oil Jobbers Council, independent middlemen who buy oil from refiners and sell it to retailers. They needed an attorney because the energy crisis meant that the government had begun to regulate many aspects of their business.
"It was a great job," Bassman said. "If the oil jobbers lived in New York, Damon Runyon would have invented them.The are the real entrepreneurs, driving Cadillacs and dressed in the best clothes they could get out of the Montgomery Ward's catalogue. They were great people. They drank and whored a lot. It was fun kicking the major oil companies in the ass."
Here the cocky side of Bassman's personality came out: "I could get away with murder while working for the oil jobbers. Once I wore a rubber nose and funny glasses at a board of directors meeting."
But dime store novelty gags can only go so far. In 1978, Bassman and his wife, Sofia, who was working as a junior production assistant for ABC News, hit rock bottom. "We were both dissatisfied and bored," he recalled. "We were not leaving our house near Dupont Circle to go to work until 10 in the morning. And then we always stopped for breakfast on Connecticut Avenue."
To salve their spirits, they decided on an around-the-world trip. Sofia quit her job and Bassman took a leave of absence. It didn't work.
"I've lived the ultimate fantasy -- a trip round the world -- and I got bored," he said.
Now Bassman has his own law firm, representing the oil jobbers privately instead of working for them. For the first month or two after the firm was established last year, he was too "petrified" to be dissatisfied. But Bassman said, "The malaise set in real quick. Now it's just another line on the resume. I've owned and operated my own law firm in Washington. I've made six figures. What do I do next? And why?"
It may be infuriating to listen to Bassman complain at a time when millions of families are struggling to make ends meet on incomes that are only a small fraction of his. But the issue is not comparative misery. Rather, it is to try to understand how we have created a generation of malcontents who sit in their fancy offices, with glittering titles and the other perks of power and dream of running away to mend fishing nets in a small town off the coast of Maine.
Twelve years ago a beleaguered Lyndon Johnson asked in his State of the Union message: "Why, then, this restlessness?" The restless generation to which he was referring was then on college campuses. Today they are in the corridors of power. This is their story.
Tall, thin and red-haired, John Cavanaugh looks like he just stepped out of a campaign poster. The 34-year-old Democrat from Omaha is finishing his second term in the House of Representatives. "I come from a political family," he said, "I'm a third-generation Irish immigrant. Being in Congress is the pinnacle of what an immigrant Irish Catholic family from the Republican Midwest could hope to achieve."
But John Cavanaugh is quitting Congress to go back to Omaha and practice law. "Now all I want is a quiet house somewhere," he explained. "I'm blessed with an endlessly charming wife, Kate, and four fascinating childdren. I realized that they were escaping me altogether. When I first came to Congress and had to travel, the kids would ask where I was going and when I would came back. Last year they quit asking."
Cavanaugh describes himself "as a child of the '60s. I have a theory that everyone has a year that determines your life and values. My year was 1968. I met my wife and fell in love. I was an observer in the streets of the Chicago convention. I was drafted out of law school and traveled to California and went to Haight-Ashbury. I basically operated off of all these observations and experiences since then."
Cavanaugh mirrored those 1960s attitudes when he spoke about his reasons for throwing in the towel. "The life style is just too competitive," he said. "I want greater control over my personal time."
Gloria* was born in an urban slum, but that was in the 1940s. Now she's one of the most successful women in television in Washington. She's poised, attractive, confident, articulate and fantasizes about running off to California and making cabinets in Big Sur. "I don't know what I'll be doing in five years," she said, "but it won't be this. I think about it everyday."
Her problem is that she doesn't "get great satisfaction out of much of television. Sitting on a set, people recognizing
*Few people in Washington feel secure enough in their jobs to talk publicly about their discontent. More than 20 people were interviewed for this article. Only Bob Bassman and John Cananaugh were willing to be quoted by name. All other names used in this article, such as Gloria, are not the real names of those interviewed. me in the street, people calling to ask where I bought the blouse I was wearing on TV last night."
To illustrate her point, she told this story: "About five years ago, when I first had these frustrations about broadcasting, I went to a professional job counselor, a psychologist. When I described my work, he said, 'What a great job you have; it's glamorous, it's exciting thousands of people would give anything to have your job.'
"That's the whole problem with public perceptions of what I do," she said "This attitude of, 'Goddam it, you ought to be happy!' People don't understand when you say that you'd take a salary cut to do something you liked. uPeople make you think that if you want to get out, you've got to be crazy. A lot people in this kind of profession have all this guilt. You've got to be crazy, neurotic, if you don't kick up your heels and shout for joy and be happy. So you pay a shrink a couple of thousand dollars to help you enjoy your success."
Each year, thousands of college students dream of getting a job with their congressman or senator and parlaying it into a life of glamor, excitement and power. Five years out of college, Mark has lived that fantasy. Bearded and intense, he was clearly nervous about the interview, well aware that he is recognizable as one of the most powerful aides on Capitol Hill. Revealing his discontent might be seen as an act of disloyalty. "Washington is a town where people are embarrassed to have feelings like these," he explained. "People don't want to acknowledge weakness."
Mark is making a "fat salary" and is taken seriously by senior members of Congress, as well as by their aides. And yet, he said, "I can't think of a job that would provide the satisfaction that I want. Maybe something like living in a housing project for the elderly and handling their legal problems."
Mark is bright and self-aware enough to try to pinpoint causes. "I'm the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Europe. My parents were the sort who tried to give their children everything they didn't have. It was a terrible disservice. There is nothing anchoring us."
Three times during lunch, Becky's beeper went off. It was her office in the White House calling; another crisis had come up. She came back to the table apologetically and said, "I approached the White House like I approached the campaign -- it was like going to prison."
Becky is the sort of woman you can imagine wearing plaid skirts and circle pins as a teen-ager. She had the standard affluent childhood, followed by a prestigious college and valuable Washington experience on Capitol Hill. Now she's a White House veteran, working grueling hours; she hates it and feels trapped by her success and the loneliness that comes with it.
Food is her metaphor for isolation. "Have you ever had popcorn for dinner?" she asked rhetorically. "Watching the 11 o'clock news and having a dinner of popcorn -- that's my life."
When she first came to Washington, Becky remembered being shocked that men she dated had nothing in their refrigerators beside two eggs and a can of beer. "I couldn't understand how anyone could live like that," she said. "I thoughed no one could be that busy, that absorbed in work. But the other night I came home, looked in the refrigerator, and realized that I was living like that."
Tom's a little bit older, in his mid-thirties, with thinning hair and a plaid sports jacket. He's a top executive making $43,000 with a leading real estate firm, and he wanted to explain that the grass isn't greener in the private sector.
"There is this empty feeling," he said. "The feeling that the company will go on whether we're here or not. Sure, we do our part and get caught up in the day-to-day crises, but there is a feeling of hollowness underneath."
Tom grew up in the Washington suburbs, the son of a senior government bureaucrat. Although his ancestors were Catholics from Yugoslavia, rather than Jewish immigrants like Mark's, he described his childhood in similar terms.
"Growing up," he said, "I heard it all the time: 'We want to give you what we never got to get.' My parents would do anything for me and my younger sister. Piano lessons, you name it. I was less accepting of it than I should have been. It was a tough era, our parents' era. We've had all the breaks, but sometimes we didn't take advantage of them."
Although married and established, Tom depicted himself as living without firm moorings. "My parents exposed me to religion by design," he said, "but I didn't take to it." There are no goals or idols, either. "I'm not sure people our age believe in anything," he said. "We have no heroes anymore. I'm in awae of no man at this point in time."
Curly-haired David, who had been wrestling with his own career problems, was enthusiastic about explaining his disillusionment with working in the White House.
"I don't have the same set of rationalizations about my job that The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had in his day," he said. "I recognize that I have a better job than most of my friends. I have had the experience before I was 30 to 35 seeing my work discussed in the newspapers. I am aware of the fact that I made more money before I was 30 than my father did when he was 45.
He continued, "I know there are a thousand people who would give their eyeteeth for my job and they are right. The issue is whether after I've done this job for a whil, do I have a right to be dissatisfied? And I say that I do."
By any conventional measure of achievement, each of these men and women, none older than 36, has reached a level of success that most Americans only dream about. Yet, like David, they all believe in their God-given right to be "dissatisfied."
As articulate as they are in describing the symptoms of their malaise, they became surprisingly tongue-tied when asked to explain causes. Like Mark and Tom, they were willing to blame their parents for pampered, permissive childhoods. But when one probed for something deeper, they came up with song titles: "Is the Going Up Worth the Coming Down?" by Kris Kristofferson and the classic Peggy Le ballad, "Is That All There Is?"
In the private sector, survey research firms such as Yankelovich, Skelly and White are growing rich selling data to corporations on how to handle what they call "new values workers" -- those who have lost the traditional Protestant work ethic.
Interviews with local psychiatrists revealed that these feelings of dissatisfaction are common among their patients. The psychiatrists also agreed that these feelings differed in Character and scope from traditional mid-life crisis. One theorized that "traditional authority structures -- the church, business and government -- have all been undermined. With the breakdown of authority structures, the role satisfaction is no longer there of having arrived in the power structure."
But no single theory can explaine the ennui affecting the generation taking charge in Washington. Listening to them describe their own unhappiness. one hears certain consistent refrains. They are the products of three different decades (the affluent '50s, the rebellious '60s and the nose-to-the-grindston '70s) and each has left indelible marks on their values and attitudes.
Some of the residues of the 1950s lie in the goadings of parents who worshipped success for its own sake because they have been scarred by the Depression. This was the era of "getting into the college of your choice" and "if you have a profession like a lawyer or a teacher you can write your own ticket."
The school systems also played their part. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, our schools went off on anorgy of special programs for the best and the brightest. The gifted were our first line of defense against Soviet science. It was there that expectations were raised to a fever pitch. Good grades and good College Board scores became equated with automatic success in life.
Although most of the disenchanted were high-achievers in school, Bob Bassman can serve as the exception that proves the rule. "I think I graduated high school about 841st out of a class of 992," he said. "But I had good College Boards." Good College Boards, that synonym for untapped potential, got him into the University of Pittsburgh and good Law Boards got him into the George Washington University.
One did not have to run off a commune in Vermont, deal drugs at Dupont Circle or tour with the Grateful Dead to catch a heady dose of 1960s values. Almost without exception, the young and restless in Washington were deeply affected by the period. John Cavanaugh made his pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury. David, one of the unhappy White House aides, was a member of Students for a Democratic Society in high school. Gloria, the television journalist, said, "Ten years ago, I assumed that I would spend my life laboring away in a small office with people who thought like me, working on a cause that we all believed in. I saw myself drinking chianti and eating pizza with maybe one child running around barefoot."
The disenchanted may be working in the 1980s, but their imaginations are stuck in the 1960s. Asking them about their vision of alternative lives produces answers more appropriate to college sophomores in 1968 than mature adults rising to the top of large institutions. It is the barrenness of these fantasies that helps explain why they feel trapped, yet remain Washington.
Becky, chained to her White House beeper, talks about traveling around the world. Bob Bassman, who has already taken the trip, dreams of opening "a used bookstore and just hanging around." Mark, the Capitol Hill wunderkind, says, "I'd love to have the kind of job in which I could spend four months of the year in London, four months in, say, Jerusalem and four months in New York." Tom, who feels his real estate firm "owns" him from Monday to Friday, admitted his fantasies are "kind of goofy," but still longs to "have a house overlooking a large body of water."
The 1960s eroded the gospel of public service that once motivated so many in government. Dick's first presidential vote was for Eldridge Cleaver in 1968. A half dozen years ago, he was another Midwestern graduate student plugging away on his doctoral thesis. Today he is an important government executive overseeing a multi-billion dollar social welfare program.
"The service thing is interesting," he said. "I have these moments when I'm doing it out of patriotism, out of concern for the poor. But that doesn't last. Reasons like that just don't fly anymore. The cauldron was the war. Friends getting drafted, blown up in Vietnam. An experience like that really blows you away about patriotism. Even Iran isn't enough to cause me to go back to those 'I pledge allegiance' days. There's still some kind of do-good instinct, but it's weak."
Money as a reason for working, as an end in itself, is another casualty of '60s values. Bob Bassman put it this way: "Sure, life is easier with money. But I've already got more than I need. I pick up a lot of checks in bars and restaurants, and my wife complains about it."
Gloria was born into poverty, but her attitudes were shaped more by her life as a college radical than by her up-bringing. "Money has never had much reality to me," she said. "When I got my first broadcasting job, I was making $12,000 or $13,000. When I became an on-the-air reporter it doubled, then tripled. It's meaningless. I didn't become one whit happier. All I did was fritter it away." She talked about how she bought "a raccoon coat on sale for $2,000. I've worn it twice. I'm so embarrassed by what it represents -- materialism, status, suburbia."
Few of the young and restless in Washington place much stock in religion, another traditional life anchor. Tom is typical in calling himself an "agnostic." Susan is another who has fallen away from the religion of her late twenties, she has left the White House for an equally prestigious job with a government agency. She wants out of Washington and the "express lane," but plans to go New York, not some tiny fishing village. She said: "All my family are religious Presbyterians, except me. That's their one disappointment. Before I went to college, I don't think I missed a Sunday of church, but I haven't been since.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was anchored to his wife and children. But that was before the women's movement and the decline in the birth rate. Susan always wanted to go to law school, but, married at the time, she went with expectation that "I'd volunteer for a couple of days a week for some worthy cause. I wasn't what you'd call ambitious. I wanted a nice comfortable part-time job, but I wouldn't let it devour my life."
Then came the divorce, the migration to Washington and the job in the Carter administration. Even now, working 16-hour days, she said, "Being a woman is wonderful. I don't have to support a family. I'm on my own."
A reluctance to have children is another characteristic of the restless generation in Washington. Many of the people interviewed for this article are single or divorced. Others claim to be content with childless marriages. Reflecting on his own unhappiness, Bob Bassman asked rhetorically, "Is the answer children?" He said that he and his wife "vacillate" on the issue. "Nothing I've done in my life up to now is irrevocable," he explained. "But if you create a life, that's irrevocable. You can't go through life a second time, but that's what you try to do if you have children. You want to do everything again through them."
Sometime during the 1970s almost everyone interviewed for this article made a migration to Washington. Some, like Mark, knew since they were in college that they wanted to work on Capitol Hill. For others, like Gloria, Washington was the logical next step on the ladder of ambition.
But one thing binds them all together. Their lives revolve around their jobs, yet they don't have anything particular they want to accomplish in them. They want to be, rather than do. But they are high achievers and that means they take their work seriously. David, the White House aide, spoke for many of them when he said, "One of the things that motivates me is simple technical competence. Doing my job very well."
That kind of narrow definition of work is the logical extension of an educational system that trained this generation to excel on College Boards. But standarized exams do not test the ability to form altruistic goals and work to accomplish them. "The other day I got a questionnaire addressed to 'high-level women in the Carter Administration,'" Susan said. "It asked what my goals were. I never had any goals."
The peculiar quality of work in Washington also contributes to this malaise. So many high-prestige jobs involve activities that are particularly intangible -- writing memos to the president, lobbying legislation on Capitol Hill, challenging some obscure government regulation in court. Mark, the intense Capitol Hill aside, said, "I'm not sure I could chronicle for you what I've accomplished in the last five years." Pause. "It's a real problem."
Bob Bassman, whose law practice depends on government regulation, said, "If you're a writer or a craftsman, you know what you have done. The problem is what we do here is less concrete and more ephemeral. If the town sank tomorrow, there wouldn't be one less jacket made in the world."
Not everyone who is young and successful in Washington is a malcontent. But one thing seems to characterize those of this generation who have achieved satisfaction and happiness. Somewhere along the way they have suffered. It could have been a childhood of poverty or a young husband dying suddenly or combat in Vietnam. But, regardless of the details, it was enough to make them appreciate their lives, their work, their success, their families and the way the sun comes up each morning.
Hank, who is comfortably ensconced in his White House office, is a prime example. What motivates Hank are memories of a depression, not the 1930s kind, but one that engulfed his family. m
"I'm escaping a family of losers," he said. "I never took for granted the affluence most people expect. In my own childhood, I saw it slip away through neglect and incompetence. My parents were divorced. From age 14 through college, my mother and I lived on my child support. My mother has a master's degree, my father's a physician. We were middle-class kids. But I had to drop out of college, after one month on campus, because my mother never put aside any money for my tuition. It was the key experience of my life."
Mary has an office a few doors down the hall from Hank. In her early thirties, she's a few years younger than he is. But what separates them is not a few years or a few yards, but a gulf in attitudes that spans a generation.
Mary said flatly, "I hate my job." Her mother is dead, but Mary knows that she wouldn't have understood her distress.
"I can hear my mother's voice," she said. "'Mary, this is the real world. You have to work hard. Mary, it's the White House. It's government service. You're doing a service. How can you be unhappy?'"
Yet Mary, like so many of the desenchanted, still sees herself as restless and dissatisfied. And this widespread ennui may be the identifying mark of a generation that had all the advantages and wound up believing in nothing, valuing nothing and enjoying nothing.